The cruelty of the criminal justice system

Why killers need to hear victim impact statements and why the criminal justice currently enables them to avoid facing up to what they have done.

illustration showing law textbook and justice scales


I woke up today to the news about Lucy Letby refusing to come to court to be sentenced. I’d only just been talking about this to a friend the night before as there has been an increasing pattern of very serious cases where the defendant has refused to come to court to hear the victim impact statements and be sentenced. The driver who killed our daughter Anisha refused twice to come to court and was sentenced in absentia.

Last week I was told that the restorative justice process I began in order to read him my impact statement was finished because after over 1.5 years of back and forth he now no longer wants to take part. I guess there is nothing in it for him as he gets out this week.

I asked at one point if it would affect the sentence he served and was told not directly, but that it would be considered ‘in the round’. So I paused it myself for a couple of months or so because sometimes – often – it feels as if everything in the criminal justice system is geared towards the perpetrator.

On the news today I heard a representative of the criminal justice system talking about how distressing it would be to have to drag a defendant to court. That was similar to the reply I got through the Ministry of Justice. They said that it might be disruptive and cause me and my family more distress. Have they actually spoken to families of victims? I don’t think so. It wouldn’t distress me nearly as much to see someone forced to come to court as to find they haven’t bothered to turn up to their own sentencing. That is sheer contempt for both them and the victim. The disruption caused would mainly be to the criminal justice system surely. Don’t try to patronise me by telling me you know what I would think.

In any case, there are other things that the justice system could do to force the perpetrator to actually face justice, such as withholding privileges or in cases where there is not a life sentence significantly lengthening sentences if they fail to leave their cell to attend court. I don’t even know what difference failure to turn up to court twice had to the sentence in our case. It would, the judge said, be taken as a sign of no remorse. But I’m certain that it was not nearly as much as the third he got off for pleading guilty and the half he actually served. Why should he be rewarded for pleading guilty to something he was caught on CCTV doing and get virtually no comeback for making my daughter’s boyfriend have to prepare himself to relive the whole of that night by reading out his impact statement in court twice and then not to be there to hear it? My daughter’s boyfriend read out the impact statement because, like me, he wanted the defendant to know what he had done and how wonderful a person my daughter was. That matters.

The criminal justice system doesn’t seem to comprehend that. In so many ways it treats victims’ families cruelly. I am compiling a book on that cruelty and on all the different ways it fails – and not just because of a lack of resources, which I am well aware of. It is fundamentally cruel. Maybe it will be cathartic to put it down on paper, but the process is never-ending. We’re still in the middle of it three and a half years on.

It feels sometimes as if the criminal justice system views victims’ families as somehow slightly unhinged and a bit of a nuisance. There is a sense that under all the replies to questions it is an eye-rolling ‘here we go again’ approach. But here we will go again until it actually listens. Not fake listening, but listening with empathy. The defendant in our case is apparently angry at everyone but himself, including my daughter, presumably for daring to cross the road while he was coming the hill, going through two red lights and driving on both sides of the road at such speed that when she jumped back he actually turned in towards her and her boyfriend and his friend. Incredibly, at one point he was given ‘victim empathy’ sessions in prison. How do you teach empathy? In a way you can understand him running about from responsibility – maybe he has done that all his life – but the justice system should not allow him to.  Unfortunately, that is what it currently does.

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